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Legends Classic performance bodes well for Northwestern’s postseason chances

The Wildcats missed a big chance but showed that they’ll have plenty more down the road.

Legends Classic Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

In less than a week, Northwestern took on three teams that all won at least 20 games and made the NCAA Tournament last season. After a gut-wrenching loss to Butler last Wednesday, the Wildcats entered the Legends Classic tournament as the only team to have not appeared in March Madness last year. And yet, the team was 20.6 seconds away from claiming some hardware.

After dismantling Texas, Northwestern hung around against Notre Dame, eventually taking the lead on a Bryant McIntosh floater with 39.3 seconds to go. After a Fighting Irish miss, all the Wildcats had to do to seal a victory was hold on to the ball and make some free throws. What followed was a catastrophic collapse.

Nathan Taphorn threw the ball away and conceded a three-point play, despite having two timeouts. Bryant McIntosh, who shot 16.7 percent from the field on the night, missed a jump shot to take the lead with less than six seconds left. Ballgame.

Northwestern lost two games by a combined six points. What’s even more painful is the fact that the team led in both games with less than a minute to go.

“This is two games so far where we were up...and both times, we haven’t finished those games, so that’s obviously gonna be an emphasis for us going forward,” said Lindsey, following the team’s loss on Tuesday.

Taphorn, who’s had to play extended minutes off the bench with Aaron Falzon dealing with knee issues, provided a huge spark off the bench, canning four three-pointers. He brought the kind of senior leadership needed for such a young team. That’s why it was so ironic that he of all people was the one to set off the team’s collapse in the final seconds. The Wildcats carry just two seniors on the team, and one of them was the major reason Northwestern missed out on a huge opportunity for a quality win.

Losses like these can either splinter a team’s morale, or they can build the foundation for stronger performances down the road. Northwestern clearly felt the effect of the latter earlier this year, pummeling No. 22 Texas after losing to Butler on a last-second jump shot.

It’s fair to expect the Wildcats to use their loss to Notre Dame in a similar fashion. Despite coming away without any hardware, the team knows it can use the game as a learning experience. Lindsey said as much afterward.

“Just like from any game, win or loss, we just gotta learn from it, look at the things we did wrong down the stretch, and also look at the things we did good in the game,” he said. “We just gotta be sharper down the stretch.”

In both games at the Legends Classic, Northwestern was the underdog heading in, but after knocking off the Longhorns and being on the brink of toppling the Fighting Irish, it’s worth discussing whether the Wildcats have what it takes to make the postseason.

All three of the team’s wins have been comfortable victories, including one against a nationally ranked opponent (though Texas will surely fall out of the Top 25 now). Both losses have been close, and if it weren’t for late-game turnovers, Northwestern could easily be undefeated.

The Wildcats weren’t favored against Butler and Notre Dame, and yet dominated for key stretches of both games. Against the Bulldogs, the team scored eight unanswered points during a two-minute span of the second half to take a six-point lead late.

The loss to the Fighting Irish featured four lead changes, all in the last seven minutes of the game. Despite trailing for most of the game, Northwestern never gave up, going on a 10-0 run in two minutes to go up by six points as the game wound down.

While the Wildcats haven’t closed either game out, they have shown that they’re capable of putting together periods stretches of play. How they handle opposing teams’ responses to those runs will determine how far they can play into March.

“Basketball is a game all about runs, and you know they’re gonna throw some punches,” Law said after Tuesday’s loss. “And you’re either gonna get knocked back, or you’re gonna stand up and throw some right back.”

And now another question arises: Can the Wildcats make the most of their limited opportunities to pick up true quality wins? It’s clear this team has talent. Will it get enough opportunities ? The hardest part of the much-maligned non-conference slate is done, though opportunities against Wake Forest (61st in Kenpom) andDayton (38th) loom. Of course the Wildcats will have to take care of business against the DePauls and IUPUIs of the world, too. But with limited non-conference opportunities for quality wins — and two of them already missed by the slightest of margins — the Demon Deacons and Flyers are extremely important for the resume-building process.

As conference play nears, Northwestern needs to keep throwing punches. If the team lands enough of them, an appearance in the postseason — an important step forward for the program and its future — could be on the horizon.